Atari: The Lost Years of the Coin-Op, 1971 – 1975
Atari: The Lost Years of the Coin-Op, 1971 – 1975
Author: Steve Fulton
Editing and Online Layout: Bill Loguidice and Cecil Casey
Special Thanks: Dan Hower, who graciously allowed us to use many of the images from his collection for this story. You can visit Dan’s Websites at http://www.howervision.net/</span> and http://www.coinopvideogames.com/</span>. You can view Dan’s arcade flyers and many others at the fascinating http://www.arcadeflyers.com</span>
Additional Special Thanks: Curt Vendel, for his assistance to the author with this article. You can see his impressive collection of Atari information at http://www.atarimuseum.com</font>
Return to Part II of this Article
1974: First Quarter: Atari Develops Growing Pains
The year 1974 proved to be a difficult one for Atari. The “Jackals”, as Bushnell had described them, continued to make copies of his games for distribution. The major Pong-style games that flooded the market in 1974 were:
Flim Flam by Meadow Game (a sit-down copy of Pong)
Fun Four by Bally Games (a Pong variant with four game variations)
Astrohockey by HID/Visco Games
Clean Sweep by Ramtek
Countdown by Volley
Challenge from Mirco
Competition was just one of Atari’s worries; manufacturing issues had also become a problem. Assembly line quality was terrible and $800 a day in equipment was lost to theft. The line workers were not happy and complained of low wages even though their $1.75 an hour was actually above the minimum wage. Bushnell hired outside managers to help solve these problems, but this only led to further unrest between labor and management. Bushnell was an engineer at heart and the details of being company president were bogging him down.
Bushnell’s concentration on engineering meant that while labor might have been problematic, R&D and engineering were still in good standing. Designers and engineers were having a blast designing and testing new games. They had “rip-roaring” brainstorming bashes at places like hotels and a condo complex where 40 people would get together and discuss ideas for games. Bushnell saw engineering as the core value of his business and made moves to bolster Atari’s engineering capacity even further. He contracted with ex-Ampex employees, Steve Mayer and Larry Edmonds, who were running a high-tech facility in Grass Valley. Atari started an exclusive relationship with this pair of engineers and the facility became known as the “Grass Valley Think Tank”.
1974: January 30: Atari Starts Using the Trademark “Innovative leisure”
January 30, 1974: Atari started using the term “Innovative leisure” to describe their business. They would file to trademark this term in April 1976, and be granted that mark in February 1977.
1974: January 30: Atari Introduces Superpong
“An Improvement On a Proven Money Maker From The Originators Of Pong…”
Superpong was a one or two player contest. This game was an evolution over Pong that used variable ball speeds, angles and three paddles (vertically aligned) for each player. To further spice-up the game, the ball was served from random positions on the screen. Atari described Superpong as “not easily mastered”, but since it is a relatively unknown game, it was probably too hard at a time where ball and paddle games were losing their appeal. Pong competition was too fierce at this point in the coin-op world for Superpong to make any sort of impact. The hardware featured a discreet logic design and was advertised as Durastress™, as well as marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.
1974: February: Atari Introduces Rebound (Kee copies with Spike!)
“It’s A Whole New Ball Game…”
Rebound was Atari’s fourth coin-op game and was a simple version of volleyball that required two-players. Steve Jobs signed off on the wiring diagram for the cabinet. A schematic dated 11/31/73 describes this game as “Volleyball”. The game was like a vertical version of pong in which hitting the ball would send it on a parabolic path over four short lines that represented a net. The hardware featured a discreet logic design and was advertised as Durastress™, as well as marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.
Rebound was also featured in an unreleased variation on Puppy Pong named Puppy Pong Volleyball. The game used the same cabinet as Puppy Pong, but used the Rebound game.
“The Spike-Man Cometh…from Kee …”
Spike was a copy of Atari’s Rebound. Like most Kee games, features were added to slightly differentiate them from their Atari cousins. In this case, the “Spike” button was added.
1974: March 4: Atari Introduces Quadrapong (Kee copies with Elimination)
“Another Video Action Favorite! Quadrapong is the newest addition to Atari’s Line of unique video skill games. …”
Quadrapong was a two- to four-player table-top, look-down cabinet. Each player was given four points and tasked with defending one side of a diamond-shaped screen. Players lost a point each time one of the others score in his goal and was eliminated if this happened four times. At that point, the goal was sealed and became a solid wall. Hardware was a discreet logic design, advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.
“The look of the future is yours’ today with Elimination! …”
Elimination, from Kee Games, was a copy of Atari’s Quadrapong from Kee Games. Like most Kee games, features were added to slightly differentiate them from their Atari cousins. In this case, “extra life pots” are randomly placed on the playfield and the player who hits the ball into one gets a point added back to their score.
1974: March 18: Atari Introduces Gran Trak 10 (Test Marketed)
“From the ‘Pong People’, New videogame concept, big racing action, fantastic sound effects, worldwide market in millions! …”
Gran Trak 10 was the first driving coin-op videogame with a steering wheel, gear shift, and gas and brake pedal controls. It was also the machine that could have ended Atari before they ever really got started. The game was a race against the clock on a single track and there were no other cars except for the player’s. Oil slicks made the player’s car spin-out and the side of the track had to be avoided at all costs. This was a very simple version of many racing games to come. ROM memory was used (in the form of diodes) to store the sprites for the car, track and oil slick.
Atari’s new Grass Valley (Most appropriately named at that time. -ed) think tank was used to design the game, but Atari proper was disappointed by engineering flaws in the original design. Al Alcorn had to step in and fix the game before it went into production.
This fix created costly rework and delays for the game. Worse, an accounting error had Gran Trak 10 selling for $995, when it cost $1095 to manufacture. Because of these problems, Atari lost $500,000 on Gran Trak 10, which was as much as the company had made the previous year. The European version of the game was called: Race Circuit Automaten. The game was advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.
1974: July 24th: Atari Announces Trak 10
Later in 1974, Gran Trak 10 was repackaged into a smaller cabinet and renamed Trak 10. The game cabinet was designed to fit into the smaller spaces that small bar, grocery store and laundromats could set-aside for games.
1974: April 1: Time Magazine Report on “Space Age Pinball” (and Atari)
Some interesting notes from the report:
- Videogames have caught on on college campus, listed as the number two activity behind streaking
- Appeal to businesses that would never have permitted “pinball” games (high class restaurants, hotels)
- Pong machines make about $200 - $300 a week and cost about $1,100 each
- Pong machines take quarters ($.25), while pinball mostly takes dimes ($.10), which makes pinball less profitable
- “Screen games” (as Time calls them) are estimated to take-in $900 million a year
- Industry is about $60 Million all together with 18 U.S. and 23 European (no mention of Japanese) companies
1974: May: Atari’s Second Fiscal Year Ends with a Loss
Atari loses $500,000 in 1973 - 1974 (mostly from the Gran-Trak 10 problems) and cuts half of its staff. Pong games had stopped selling and Bushnell started to look like a one-trick pony. He needed to turn-the-company around with a hit game and some engineering innovations if Atari was going to survive.
1974: Summer: Atari in Dire Financial Straits
In the summer of 1974, Atari was close to bankruptcy and very under capitalized. The company tried to grow too quickly. Atari Japan, set up in 1973, was a complete failure. Bushnell had no idea how to conduct business in Japan. He sold Atari Japan to one of the founders of Namco. The relationship between the two companies would continue for almost two decades.
1974: June: Kee Introduces Formula K (Copy of Gran Trak 10)
Formula K was a one player racing game from Kee games that was a copy of Gran Trak 10. The game featured a different cabinet than Gran Trak 10 and added a new “Lap Timer” feature. Hardware was discreet logic, with ROM used for car and oil slick graphics. No notes are available on how profitable Kee was at this time.
1974: June: Atari Introduces Coupe De Monde
This was a one player only soccer-themed Pong-style game released by Atari Europe. This game was sold in both upright and table-top models. Hardware was discreet logic.
1974: August 21: Atari Introduces Gran Trak 20
“Double your pleasure… double your earnings! …”
Gran Trak 20 was a one or two player version of Gran Trak 10 designed at Grass Valley and fixed by Al Alcorn. This game featured two complete sets of controls (steering wheel, brake pedal, gas pedal, four speed gear shift) and used a black and white screen. The game can be played one or two player, but the two player feature required one quarter per participant. If a player obtained a score of 40 or more, they were awarded a free game (both players if two were playing). However, reaching 40 points on your free game would not extend play another time.
The final date signed-off on engineering documents is August 26, 1974, but the game’s release to the public was later in the year. The hardware was discreet logic, with diode-based ROM used for the car and oil slick graphics. The game was marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.
“The forerunner to this game, Formula K, Sold Out! An Industry first! …”
Twin Racer was a one or two player Kee Games copy of Gran Trak 20. This game added the new feature of the “ram effect”, which allowed you to knock your opponent off the track. Free play was awarded at 20 points instead of Gran Trak’s 40. Another Kee Games “innovation” with this game was the “Automatic Drive Button”, which was advertised as “for ladies and kids – must for arcades”. The hardware was discreet logic with diode ROM used for car and oil slick graphics.
1974: October 31: Atari Introduces Pin Pong Coin-op
“Atari’s New Unique Concept …”
Pin Pong was a one or two player black and white video pinball game, with a rather crude table. The Pin Pong flyer describes the game as: “In Pin-Pong a gravity algorithm accelerates the ball downward to give realistic pinball action on the screen”. The ball movement within the game was governed by a patented ball movement circuit. The hardware was discreet logic.
1974: November 5: Kee Games Introduces Tank!
The importance of the game Tank! in the history of Atari cannot be understated. It was the game that saved Atari from bankruptcy in 1974. The arcade version of Tank! is a two player tank combat game played on a black and white screen. It was very similar to one of the most popular modes of the Atari 2600 Combat cartridge: two player tank combat. Players each used twin joysticks to control their tank (Think of the Battlezone arcade control setup, but side-by-side for two players. –ed.). The game became so popular that the exclusivity agreements demanded by distributors were thrown out the window, allowing Atari and Kee to re-form as one company. The game was designed by Steve Bristow and Lyle Rains at Kee Games, with Lyle doing much of the programming. "I was working on it when I hired Lyle," Steve Bristow recalled, "Then I gave it to him and he finished it. A lot of the implementation was his, but the original idea was mine." The Game cabinet was designed by Peter L. Takaichi and patented October 20, 1975 (US Patent # D243,624).
Tank! is one of the first arcade games to use IC ROM read-only-memory as well as discreet logic chips. The ROM enabled the game to have distinct looking sprites to represent the tanks in the game. Gran-Trak 10 from the same year also used a ROM, but in a very primitive form that used diodes to store the ones and zeros.
1974: November 5: Atari Introduces Qwak!
“Qwak – It’s a Hit! …”
Qwak! was a one player light-gun controlled duck hunting videogame with a black and white monitor. The gun was shaped like a rifle with a security mechanism that would sound an alarm if it was stolen. This was not likely as it used a metal flex cord similar to a pay telephone handset cord to attach the gun to the cabinet.
One duck would fly across the black and white monitor at a time, giving the player three shots to hit it. A "hunting dog" would run out and collect the fallen prize if the player was successful with their aim. The game could be set by the operator to have time limits, extended time and free games. Hardware was a discreet logic design, advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan, with the added tagline: “The sky’s the limit when it comes to our inventiveness”.
1974: November 13: Atari Introduces Touch Me Coin-op Game
Touch Me was a one player, discreet logic coin-operated game that was played without a video screen. Colored lights, aligned in a row, lit-up in succession. The player was tasked with memorizing the pattern, so they could repeat it. The game was very much like the handheld game Simon that would appear years later. Interestingly, Atari tried to combat Simon with a handheld version of Touch Me, but it was an unsuccessful venture.
1974: December/Year End: Atari and Kee Merge
Tank! was such a huge hit for Kee Games that by the end of the year distributors no longer demand exclusive rights. Bushnell was having cash flow problems at Atari (many of which stemmed from problems with Gran Trak 10 and an unprofitable venture into Japan.). Joe Keenan on the other hand was running Kee Games brilliantly. He was much more than a figurehead at Kee Games, and in fact, impressed Bushnell with his business savvy. Atari and Kee merged at the end of 1974. Joe Keenan became president of Atari, Steve Bristow became head of engineering and Al Alcorn became head of R&D. This allowed Bushnell to concentrate on engineering and not on the details of running the day-to-day operations of a company. (Joe Keenan is a bit of an enigma, as there are no detailed articles or interviews to be found by or about him on the Internet. If someone knows more about this fellow, speak up. –ed.)
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